By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
For decades, we have been telling stories about the Second World War and the Holocaust, and for decades, the movies have committed these stories to something as close to permanent status as possible.
There are many documentaries in the catalog, some of which tell very personal accounts of that nightmare seen from specific vantage points. You might think that all such stories have been told by now, that there are only so many ways of describing how those events cast their shadow across so many decades.
Think again, because “The Flat,” a new documentary by Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger, contains quite a tale. Its story is not limited to the past, either, because it’s very much about how people live with realities of the Holocaust in the 21st century.
The low-key Goldfinger appears on camera and narrates, because this is personal. When his grandmother Gerda dies at age 98 in Tel Aviv, he and his mother go to work cleaning up the apartment Gerda lived in for decades; she and Goldfinger’s grandfather Kurt fled Germany in the late 1930s and settled in Palestine.
And yet they never entirely left Germany, as the grandson learns as he goes through their mementoes. He finds a curious series of articles detailing how Gerda and Kurt traveled to Palestine as tourists in the early 1930s — written by the Nazi official who was their traveling companion.
Weirdly, it comes out that the couple remained friends with this Nazi official, whose name was von Mildenstein, and his wife. They were the kind of friends who would spend couples vacations together — except that one couple was Jewish, and one couple was Nazi, and this was 1930s Germany.
The story gets even stranger, but we’ll let the movie tell that part. What is as interesting as the story of this past history is that Goldfinger must coax his own mother to listen to it. Like many children of the Holocaust, she wants to get past it. This is also true of von Mildenstein’s daughter, whom Goldfinger tracks down and travels to Germany to meet.
Being a filmmaker, Goldfinger brings his camera into these encounters, and captures moments that are hugely awkward and/or revealing.
None is more devastating than when he shares a letter from his mother’s aunt, who was murdered in an extermination camp. At first, his mother doesn’t believe the letter can possibly be authentic, but her argument for this has more to do with her unwillingness to confront it than with the evidence at hand.
“The Flat” is a story of the Holocaust, but it asks basic questions, too: How much do people want to know about themselves? How much do they already know but deny? That’s where this fascinating movie becomes really insightful.
“The Flat” (3½ stars)
Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger digs through his grandmother’s belongings and discovers an increasingly astonishing story about his grandparents’ relationship to their native Germany, a story that inevitably spans the Holocaust. This insightful movie scores not only in bringing that story to light, but in showing how the current generation deals with uncomfortable realities from its past. In German, Hebrew and English, with English subtitles.
Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter.